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SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS

For all sides, goal is preservation

Last of four parts

GLOUCESTER -- Paul Cohan, with his bushy beard, plaid shirt, and jeans, looked every bit the fisherman he is as he strode across the blue carpeting of a ballroom overlooking the harbor here and sat down heavily. Across from him were two government officials, in town last month to hear testimony about sweeping new fishing regulations to be voted on soon.

Cohan cleared his throat. He pulled the microphone on the table a little closer.

And then he began to sing.

It was a dirge, a mournful lament about seafaring men in the oldest fishing community in America, men who have worked hard and honestly and who were having their livelihood taken away. In a clear, lilting voice, Cohan went on for five stanzas, as more than 100 silenced people listened in at a local function hall.

As Cohan ended, his lament gave way to defiance: "We can either go fishing with you or without you," he said, "but we are going fishing."

The room broke into cheers.

Cohan and his boisterous colleagues are on a collision course with reality. They know it and show few signs of backing away from it.

Barring an act of Congress, dramatic reductions in commercial fishing will be announced as early as next month, and imposed in May. Yet, even at this late date, many fishermen remain fixed in denial or disbelief, hoping the changes won't come, offering up unrealistic alternatives to the additional restrictions that now seem likely.

This port city, whose docks still offer up the pungent fish odor locals call "money," is home to some of the most militant of the region's fishermen. Some here vow that they will defy stricter limits by fishing illegally or by lying about how much they catch. But Gloucester's fishermen only say more loudly what many of their peers elsewhere in New England are coming to believe:

Why should they obey a government which seems bent on their destruction?

Why should they let their way of life be changed, perhaps forever, by bureaucrats who may never have set a net or cast a line?

Why won't anyone listen when they say the fish are coming back?

Their complaints are more than just the inevitable background noise to the painful work of saving the fishery. Their attitude is critical. For without the cooperation of fishermen, the decades-long effort to rebuild the region's failing groundfish stocks will likely fail. When fishermen go out alone into the giant 35,000-square-mile Gulf of Maine, the size of their catch is monitored largely through an honor system; spot checks and audits are exceedingly rare. Government officials privately worry that the fishermen, if enough of them rebel, could wreak havoc.

Still, consensus, even in the name of protest, won't come easily. Outwardly, fishermen present a remarkably united front, scornful of the need to further limit their catch. But they are in truth a deeply splintered band, divided into tribes by the size of their boats, the types of gear they use, and the ports they call home. Proudly individualistic and thus essentially leaderless, they have been unable to agree on what should be done. The dream of many is that nothing more will be done to change New England's oldest trade.

"Too many people are struggling to think about how to get back to the good old days," says Paul Parker, head of the Chatham-based Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, who is loathed by some fishermen for aligning his group with environmentalists. "If you are thinking about how to get back to the way it was, you are not watching the news enough."

'A life force'

Why won't fishermen back down? Joe Mike Brancaleone thinks he knows.

He will never forget the looks he got after he took a job flipping hamburgers at a Burger King on the road to Gloucester.

Brancaleone, a soft-spoken man, comes from a three-generation Gloucester fishing family renowned as "highliners" -- the elite fishermen who catch and earn the most. He was the captain of one of the boats the family owned, the Joseph and Lucia II, named for his grandparents, who left Sicily in the 1920s to build a small fishing empire on Cape Ann.

They enjoyed some heady years. But by 1988, the family had decided, as a group, to get out of fishing. The profits had gotten too slim, while the risks, as always, were high.

And so Brancaleone and his cousins found new jobs: Tom, a boat engineer, took a position in the maintenance department of Gorton's. Joe Charley got a job with a shellfish company.

And Brancaleone ended up at Burger King.

"People on their way to Gloucester came in and laughed at me," says Brancaleone, now a district manager with the fast-food chain. "When I got out of fishing I represented some offshore fishermen, but when they ran out of money I took a second job at Burger King, wearing a beanie like everyone else."

It is one of the biggest obstacles to bringing change to the New England seafood trade: the fishermen's deeply anchored sense that there is no other life for them. Other jobs seem pale, even pathetic, in comparison.

Partly it is the money. In good times, a fisherman fresh out of high school can make $60,000 to $80,000 in a year -- and that's as a crew member. A captain's share often runs to $95,000 and more.

Some, like the Brancaleones, have tried to branch out. At the Gloucester Fishermen and Families Assistance Center, an agency that trains fishermen for new jobs, there are snapshots of success stories posted on the wall: Men and women holding up truck driver licenses, or computer technician certificates, jobs that in many cases will pay them much less than they once made on the water.

But even more than the money, fishermen say they are addicted to the life. They have spent hundreds of hours in the classroom of the sea, learning how to ease a huge net into the water so that its mouth stays open wide enough to swallow schools of fish. They learn how to chip ice off the rigging so that the boat doesn't become top-heavy and tip during fierce winter storms. They have mastered the complex hunt that leads them to the fish, a game of intuition and skill that is among fishermen's most closely guarded secrets.

And above all, they feel free. No boss in the normal sense, no office, and days spent enveloped by nature's spectacle.

"I think fishermen want to stay fishing because of the total independence," says Gloucester's Bill Crossen, who has been groundfishing for 30 years. "It's a life force. It's a whole mindset. It's just something I'd be scared to death to change."

And so rather than face up to the long-term consequences of ever-tightening limits, fishermen have, for years, cleverly fished their way around the rules, supplementing their income from more abundant, if less marketable, species. Many hope they can survive the coming quotas in much the same way, though some fisheries specialists believe that this time they are wrong.

When cod stocks first showed signs of trouble in the 1980s, fishermen started to go after the spiny dogfish, a beastly snouted shark used in Britain's fish and chips. And more fishermen went after monkfish, a gape-mouthed species popularized by Julia Child. Then, like the cod, both the dogfish and monkfish began to fail.

Now fishermen find themselves moving faster and farther down the food chain -- and running out of alternatives. In recent years, New England fishermen have turned to sea urchins, whose roe is a delicacy in Asia, but now urchins are disappearing. They are also pursuing hagfish, also known as slime eels, which are sold in Korean roadside stands, often with a shot of liquor on the side.

Two years ago, when a federal judge declared that the government needed to impose severe limits on ground-fishermen, Mark Davis of Rockport thought he was being smart to spend $6,000 outfitting his boat for hagfish. Now, after finding most large inshore hagfish gone, he must spend more on fuel to forage farther out to sea.

"It's to the point where you can just make enough money to keep the crew happy," says Davis, father of a 7-year-old and 5-year-old triplets. "You know, I used to do just one fishing thing, and I made a living. Then I did two. Now, I may have to do three."

A changing landscape

But if New England fishermen can't imagine another life, New England might not find it nearly as hard to imagine life without them. This is another reality that fishermen haven't quite faced.

Once the region's defining industry, fishing is now, outside of a few key ports, closer to an economic afterthought. Government statistics show that all commercial fishing workers -- from net weavers to fish processors to the lobster, scallop, and groundfish boat crew members -- constitute about 32,000 of the 8 million jobs in coastal New England, $2.5 billion in sales of the $842 billion regional economy in 1998. Even more to the point, New England fishermen aren't even the region's major seafood providers. Some of the catch is sent to other markets. Their hard and dangerous work brings in only about a quarter of the fish we consume here -- and less than 10 percent of the cod. The region's fishery, once the world's leader, has become a small part of a globalized fish business.

The point is brought home on a visit to Captain Marden's Seafoods, a market in Wellesley. When the original store opened in 1945, the only fish on display were cod, haddock, and a few other species hauled up by local fishermen. Now owner Kim Marden points to up-and-comers like salmon raised on farms in Maine's Washington County, and tilapia, a bland white fish raised on farms in Costa Rica.

Americans' taste for some fish species has grown -- salmon consumption, for example, has more than doubled in the last decade. But some of the old groundfish species have been, by contrast, falling off the plate. Since 1990, average cod consumption has dropped by half, to about two servings per person per year, as cheaper alternatives have come along and diners have turned to other delicacies.

And fish consumers seem increasingly indifferent to whether what they eat is caught locally, or caught by fishermen at all. Fish raised on farms have grown cheaper and more plentiful. The rise of aquaculture, as it is known, is part of the slow but relentless squeeze on the fishing fleet, a squeeze that economists predict will continue for the foreseeable future. Of all the seafood on the planet now, roughly a third of it -- half of it by value -- is created by farmers.

So far, in a break for local fishermen, scientists have not perfected a way of spawning and raising cod and some other key groundfish species in captivity. But time may be running short. Canada's Northern Aquaculture Corp. and several other companies say they have overcome most of the major scientific obstacles to breeding cod and are working on scaling up production. Nutreco, the world's largest supplier of farmed salmon, says that it plans to produce 3,000 tons of cod in Norway next year, and that it hopes to hit 100,000 tons by 2010 -- several times larger than New England's total catch.

"You have to provide better quality food, more cheaply, just to stay even," says Gunnar Knapp, a professor of economics at the University of Alaska. "Globalism is ramming changes through this industry the way it did New England's textile industry or the Detroit auto industry."

As pressures grow on the fishing trade, the look of the New England coast has also changed. The fishing fleet has gradually abandoned the smaller harbors that dot the coast, in favor of larger ports. Tourist attractions and vacation homes have taken their place at the water's edge.

In Rockland, Maine, Donald Paulsen II has watched it happen. From the deck of the Misty Mae, an aging wooden fishing boat bobbing off the end of the fish pier here, he has seen a new city taking shape. To the north, a long red building that used to be a sardine cannery now serves as a parking area for tourists in the summer and houses yachts in the winter. To the south are wide banks of well-manicured lawns and the gleaming new offices of MBNA, the credit card company.

Rockland was once a rough-edged fishing village, with a harbor full of boats in search of Gulf of Maine cod and haddock. Everybody has a story about the free-spending, free-drinking fishermen who used to light up the town between voyages. Now Rockland is Maine's leading port for windjammers, the sailing ships that take tourists out in the summer. Boutiques have invaded the brick hulls of department stores along Main Street. And Paulsen, toiling in an oil-stained green sweatshirt, is the last man docked here who brings groundfish into this port.

"I think if the city had their way they'd love to turn this into another marina for yachts and sailboats," says Paulsen, referring to the aging town dock he uses. "If someone could give me a halfway decent price for the boat, I'd sell out. I'd hate to, but I might just do it."

Between 1996 and 2002, the number of days fishermen spent at sea fell by 20 percent. And as the industry has shrunk, the crucial businesses that support the trade -- ice makers, marine supply stores -- have also begun to close down. After two decades, Portsmouth's Fishermen's Cooperative, a peeling gray-shingled building on the waterfront, may have to close in the next year, leaving fishermen to buy their fuel and ice at premium prices. In Provincetown, the 13 or so groundfishing boats that remain from a fleet that once boasted more than 50 boats, huddle together at the end of a long state pier, and the fishermen in them worry that if any more leave they won't be able to afford the truck that takes their fish to be processed in New Bedford. In Plymouth, groundfisherman James Keding wonders if he will be allowed to dock in town when he spends so few days at sea.

"The town bylaws say you have to move a boat every 30 days," Keding says. "I wonder how long they'll let me stay there."

Adaptation in Iceland

Caught between such forces of change, it isn't surprising that fishermen have grown convinced that they have compromised enough, that accepting further limits will only lead to ruin.

But one doesn't have to travel all that far to find a place where fishermen, confronting similar challenges, decided to give change a chance. The island nation of Iceland, dotted with volcanic hot springs and glacial ice, is a very different place from New England. But its fleet pursues the same North Atlantic fish, and Icelanders have already fought their way through their own groundfishing crisis. It is a story in which every chapter is familiar, except for the last.

Like New England, Iceland found its waters being picked clean by big foreign boats. From the late 1950s to the 1970s Icelandic boats resorted to ramming frigates and slicing through trawl lines as English ships invaded their traditional fishery -- a period still referred to as the "cod wars."

And, also like New England, Iceland kicked out the foreigners and then saw its own fishermen, liberated from competition, beat down the stocks. In three years, from 1981 to 1983, the cod catch dropped from 462,000 tons to 294,000 tons -- a clear warning of an impending crash.

Then Iceland decided to try something new, setting individual quotas for fishermen, and allowing them -- like taxi owners trading medallions -- to sell their right to fish to others, if they so choose. Over time, under such a system, fishermen who aren't making good money tend to sell their right to fish to more efficient boats, and leave the business, but with a large payoff from the sale of their quota.

Among New England fishermen, the idea of transferable rights has been viewed with suspicion, especially the system used in Iceland. The fear is that a few large boats -- or a few large corporations -- would buy up all the fishing rights and consolidate in a few large ports.

Initially, this is precisely what happened in Iceland. But authorities there, seeing the risk, stepped in to create a separate quota system for smaller boats, forbidding the large boats from buying them out. And they have started a program -- temporary for now -- that gives some extra fishing rights, free of charge, to fishermen in the small towns most dependent on the trade.

Adapting to such a dramatic change in their way of life didn't come easily, as Gudrun Palsdottir and her family can attest. They live in Flateyri, a remote fishing village in northwest Iceland, and theirs was a family with every reason to give up, rather than continue to fish under the new quota system.

Tucked beneath a series of jagged peaks that rise from the Atlantic like shark's teeth, her town was plunged into crisis a decade ago when an early round of tough conservation measures forced the factory fishing trawler that many depended on for work to leave town. And then, on an October night in 1995, came a horrific avalanche that buried homes, sent cars flying hundreds of feet, and killed 20 in a close-knit community of just 500.

But instead of fleeing for the capital city and a new life, Gudrun's family bought a small, sleek fiberglass fishing boat in 1999 and is building up a thriving business in dried cod. Life is tough going in this isolated place, but Gudrun speaks with a determined optimism that is hard to find in Gloucester.

"We will push and work and push," says Gudrun, punctuating her words with determined punches to the air. "We are making a new life, and we want to bring up this village again."

What's next

Can such hopes be sowed in a place like Port Clyde, Maine, which has become the northernmost redoubt of groundfishing in New England?

There is no way to freeze time and guarantee that there will always be places like this, where a person can still pay with haddock and scallops to have his driveway plowed in the winter.

And even here, where the year-round population hovers at about 1,200 and moss-encrusted spruce trees crowd up to the rocky coast, fishermen have begun to doubt there will, in the long run, be much but lobstering left north of Portland. It is getting hard to find people to crew on boats because the pay has become so unpredictable, says local fisherman Roger Libby, whose two sons run boats.

Walking down to a wharf, the 70-year-old Libby describes his hometown, a place where million-dollar vacation homes are popping up, and the fisherman's old bargain of good money for hard work is evaporating. Libby says that he survived the Korean War and that he'll survive this, but he also admits he sometimes feels regret that he chose fishing and got his family "mixed up in this foolishness."

But New England's groundfish industry could be far more vibrant than it is now, if the fishermen and others bring a spirit of accommodation to the coming era of limits. A Conservation Law Foundation analysis shows that the fishermen are landing less than a third of the finfish and shellfish they would if fish populations were rebuilt and managed properly.

Today, for example, New Bedford is flush with money because the fishermen there bowed to the need to sacrifice for a time and allowed the scalloping beds to recover. The boom is obvious down on the docks, where boats are getting new navigational aids and fresh paint jobs. Deckhands are making $6,000 to $7,000 for an 18-day trip, and new trucks line the piers. If fishermen can resist the temptation to fish the scallops too heavily, there is no reason the good times can't continue.

When the 18 members of the New England Fishery Management Council gather next month in Peabody, their first goal will be to select a formula to end the region's chronic addiction to overfishing.

There are a host of complex options. The council will have to decide whether to begin ending the season early if too many fish are caught -- the kind of absolute quota that hasn't been used here in two decades. They will debate whether to allow fishermen to buy and sell the right to fish -- a measure, similar in spirit to what is done in Iceland, and one that has also never been used here.

But all of the most likely plans share this: an immediate future with a smaller annual catch and fewer boats on the sea. And for those who care about the New England fishing tradition, whatever the council decides will only be the first, and in some ways the easiest, step, because this crisis is not only an environmental problem, it is a people problem. Each of the key players -- regulators, fishermen, environmentalists, scientists, and politicians -- will have to end the cycle of blame, obfuscation, and greed that has scarred fishery management here for almost 30 years.

The council will have to find a way to move beyond the narrow interests that dominate its membership. Fishermen will have to help devise a plan for their own future, accepting the reality of a smaller fleet and fierce competition from abroad. Environmentalists will need to work with fishermen, instead of drowning the government in lawsuits. Scientists will need to find better ways to track the health of the fish -- and earn some measure of trust from the men who catch the fish.

Otherwise, all agree, something they love may be lost. And the refrain that echoes over and over again on New England's emptying docks may well come true: The fish will come back, but when they do, will the fishermen be gone?

End of Series

about the series
Part one:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
A once great industry on the brink
 'I'm not going to do anything else.'
Part two:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
Mistrust between scientists, fishermen mars key mission
Part three:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
Some look for hope beyond courtroom
 'It's all about end runs for the special interests'
Part four:
 SEA CHANGE | THE NEW ENGLAND FISHING CRISIS:
For all sides, goal is preservation
 Inventive fisherman hopes for a net gain
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